Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Horses and the Screen
I’m heading to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania today to write a story for Mountain Home Magazine about a horse, a horse bought by a Civil War general, Wellsboro’s own war horse. Naturally, I had to go see “War Horse,” before Regal Cinemas sent it out to pasture.
One showing, 9:20, Friday night. That’s 20 minutes past my bed time. Oh, boy.
Alex Brown wrote a great review through the eyes of a horseman. Also, he did some classic reporting, finding out the real name of Joey, the leading horse of the movie, and what his racing career was like.
All I can do is write a review through the eyes of a story teller. A couple things struck me: why doesn’t the popularity of a racehorse or war horse on the big screen translate to the racetrack or literature? With the exception of “Seabiscuit” (because of Laura Hillenbrand’s talent) and “Secretariat” (because it was Secretariat), no book on racing has had any type of success. My feeling is that the horse is a visual creature.
Another was the movie’s superb illustration of how horses are the universal tongue of man. For the purposes of viewer-accessibility the Germans and the French all speak English, but even if they were forced to speak their native languages, any time Joey bound them, they spoke the same language. This horse changed hands more times than a nickel claimer.
Add to that director Steven Spielberg sure knows how to make you shake your head at the travesty of war. When the British, using the antiquated bayonet charge across no-man’s land, while the Germans sat tight in forts with Gatling guns, mowed the British down like grass. It was, as history books say, a war of attrition.
Just about any scene when Joey breaks free and hits his stride, the movie picks up pace. His tack hung off him like shackles as he ran riderless, avoiding the bullets that claimed his jockey. His maniacal run across no-man’s land and into a web of tangled barbed wire symbolized how torn Joey was, that he could only be freed by a truce, that his bleeding caused a cease fire.
At about the time of this movie’s nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars, HBO launches “Luck,” a racetrack drama created by famed television producer and writer David Milch. Listen to what he had to tell NPR’s Dave Davies about the show here.
Milch told Davies about his trip to Saratoga Race Course with his father, “The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler ... but it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet. On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me, and, therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off."
What this tells us is that racetrack is an immensely valuable story telling platform with different shades of people with different motives and motivations, as I tried to illustrate in “Six Weeks in Saratoga.” (Shameless plug? Yes, but I feel awesome right now.)
Normally I don’t care that I don’t have cable, but I’ll actually miss the idea of not watching “Luck,” because it will have all the elements that drive narrative: gray characters played by world-class actors, conflict, and perhaps the greatest engine in all of story telling—thoroughbred race horses.
Brendan O'Meara uses his 140 characters to his advantage on Twitter.